#026 | Unlock Genealogy Organisation Super Powers with These Four Strategic Steps
PRUDENCE: You’ve got years — and years — of genealogy research notes and discoveries that you never quite got around to filing. Some of it’s physical, some are digital, but it’s all a nightmare to manage.
You watch every video and read all the articles on organisation. Still, the task is overwhelming, and you wouldn’t know how to start getting it sorted out. And who has that kind of time? After all, it took years to get into this state, so surely it will take as long to fix it.
Sound familiar? I’ve been there too, and I made some costly mistakes before I finally solved my organisation problem once and for all. So today, on the Art of Family History, episode 26, I’m talking about genealogy organisation and how to go from disorder to order in less time and stress than you think.
Keep watching to find out about my four secret weapons to get everything organised and keep it that way, creating a system and structure that makes sense to you, and how to tackle your piles of files in 15-minute blocks.
Are you ready? Let’s do this.
INTRODUCTION: If this is your first time here, hello, I’m Prudence, The Creative Family Historian. I’m a graphic designer who helps genealogists — like you — bring their family history to life by converting research into stories and beautiful heritage keepsakes.
On this channel, I provide tips on family history productivity, organisation, writing and design, as well as sharing my current journey as I undertake a genealogy reset.
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PRUDENCE: Okay. Confession time. I’m not what you call “naturally organised” and for a long time, it just didn’t bother me. I researched my ancestry for years before I had anything as fancy as a filing system. I relied on having a good memory and a small number of ancestors to manage. My strategy was simple — I planned to remember where I’d looked and what I’d discovered.
Fast forward a decade, almost two, and it wasn’t so easy anymore. I was now juggling thousands of ancestors, several boxes of paperwork, and digital files scattered in too many locations. Not to mention my new favourite habit of writing obscure notes on teeny, tiny pieces of paper. Ah, sticky notes. My greatest joy and ultimate undoing.
In fact, it wasn’t until I started a freelance graphic design business that I realised how much my disorganisation was costing me in both time and money. Because, of course, I took the same organisation habits into my business. I didn’t use an accounting process for the first year, and I put all my paperwork into one giant pile and called it filing. Then tax time hit, panic set in, and I spent every day for 3 weeks sorting that mess out. I still don’t know if I got it right, but I never made that mistake again.
And I couldn’t be organised in one area and a hot mess in another. So, of course, my new habits filtered into my genealogy research. However, bad habits live up to their reputation of being hard to break. So I would waste more time and money before significantly improving my process.
And that catalyst? When I realised, I’d bought four copies of a birth certificate I already owned. Ouch, right? That’s when I knew it was time to organise everything and keep it that way.
So, how did I do it?
It started with a system to track my progress, discoveries, orders, and filing. You might be familiar with this one as it involves the multi-use genealogy worksheet I share.
The current version is the Essential Ancestor Discovery Worksheet. I’ll leave a link in the description box if you want to check it out. It’s not for everyone, but maybe it’s for you.
When you implement a tracking system, you can see where you’ve been and what you’ve found and decide where to go next. You can use different methods to achieve the same result, such as a research log, and I’ll talk about that in a minute.
I have a video where I show one way to use the Ancestor Discovery Worksheet to create a to-do list of what to look for next. The link is on-screen now, plus in the description box. So check that out if you’re interested.
What I find helpful about the worksheet is that it categorises the information, removing distractions and creating focus. Something vital when you’re taking steps to go from disorder to order.
And once you have made the process for tracking a habit, you’ll want to set up a searchable system. In the set-up stage, it may feel like you are doubling up on tasks, but there are ways to reduce that depending on the software you use.
So my second secret weapon is a searchable research log that doubles as your to-do list.
Now, that may feel like you’re repeating what you’ve already created with the worksheets. However, trust me when I tell you that you won’t want to flip through potentially thousands of worksheets every time you have a question about your ancestor.
Nor do you ever capture everything in your family tree software. Of course, you could by adding detailed notes to every person in your tree. However, retrieving those details may not be any faster than flipping through the worksheets.
So getting intentional and specific with your research log means that you’ll be creating a searchable system that allows you to quickly say the status of a task. I use Trello for my research log, and it’s been a game-changer. With the checklists and comments, I have lists of what to look for and where I want to search, plus the option to keep detailed notes of what I did and didn’t discover. And those lists? I can easily update progress and add additional tasks as required.
Want to know more about using Trello for your research log? You can check out mine and see how I use it in the video on screen now. You’ll also find a link in the description box.
Moving on to secret weapon number three, a digital and physical filing system.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Getting your physical files in order will take some work. It will be the most time-consuming part of getting organized, but it will be worth it. I’ll share more about how I tackled that in a little bit.
You will want your digital and physical systems to mirror each other at the top level. So then you can easily find each ancestor when you need to. It’s essential to choose a structure that makes sense to you. Some typical filing systems include:
- Alphabetical order by surname then first name
- Numerical order by an ancestral code you created
- Geographical order by where your ancestor lived
- Chronological from date of birth from oldest to youngest family members (ascending or descending).
Whichever method you choose or your physical and digital files the same way. You may also pick a primary and secondary order for your system. That’s what I did. I order my files alphabetically and then chronologically. So, by family name, then date of birth.
When storing the physical files, I use large envelopes rather than folders. And I staple the relevant worksheet to the front. Later, I’ll switch out the worksheet for an ancestor snapshot. I usually only do that when I’m 90% sure there isn’t any more discoverable information on that person. The worksheet then goes inside the envelope.
I like the envelopes because they can go in binders or hanging files. They’re easy to grab and go when heading to the library or archives. And they keep everything together in one place so nothing can fall out when carrying them — notes, photos, documents etc.
As a part of your digital filing system, you’re also going to want a naming convention. Again, you’ll find a lot about this topic online, but the best way is the one that makes sense to you. I’ll show you right now what my system looks like and I’ll explain how I developed it. In case you want to use it as a starting point for yours.
Now for a quick sneak peek at my digital filing system.
Now, this is for my genealogy reset, which I began last year. And I do save this in the cloud. So you’ll see that I have the family name at the beginning. And once I go in, you’ll see I have a bunch of folders in here. I have individual ancestors as well as a source folder.
So you’ll notice that the individual ancestor folders are coloured. And I have done that by generation. So I use this app called Colorize and you can use pre-built colours or choose your own. There is a cost involved to pay for that and it’s a subscription which I believe is twenty USD a year, but I can’t quite remember. I’ll leave a link to that in the description below.
Now in the source folder, this is where these are blank folders that I have set up and these are the way I store my ancestor files. I’ve got notes, photos, records and correspondence and I do that for each person. So then when I go in and I look at a person, you’ll notice that I have everything stored in there. And then this down here is just his Ancestor Discovery worksheet. That’s why I’ll also keep a discovery worksheet in the folder.
So that’s how simple my system is.
And then when it comes to individual files, I do keep an original folder because sometimes I like to keep the original scan and then I downsize the scan for sending out to other relatives. The order I use for the naming convention is year, month, date, and then I have a code for like what it is — whether it’s a newspaper notification, a birth certificate, marriage certificate, etcetera, and then it will be surname first, and then first name, middle name.
Let’s talk about secret weapon number four.
Now, I wish someone had taught me this process when I first began researching. It’s provided me with the most clues and helped me break through the several research roadblocks. And I’m talking about having a process for notetaking and research review.
I touched on notetaking earlier when talking about research logs. I keep notes of each genealogy session in my research log, so they’re searchable. However, I also use exercise books for each ancestor — just like this one. And that’s where I write out discoveries in my own words, sketch out theories, highlight clues and start to piece together the story of my ancestors.
Writing things out by hand is one of the ways I learn, and I’ve found it invaluable. I know writing is hard for many people, so you can create the same thing online using OneNote, Evernote or Notion. Set up a notebook or folder for each ancestor and utilise voice-to-text functionality to add all your notes.
And don’t forget to schedule review sessions every week where you spend time analysing your notes and discoveries. Start with 30 to 60 minutes. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in that time.
After all, it’s easy to miss clues when you’re on a roll and don’t stop to analyse what you’ve already found. Of course, you fully intend to come back to it later. However, another research rabbit hole beckons, and you’re off on the family history discovery path again.
Learn more about my process for analysis in my article linked below — Family History discovery analysis made easy in a three-step process. So, I’ve given you a broad idea about my system and how I organise my genealogy research, notes and discoveries.
Creating a system and structure that makes sense to you
So, I’ve given you a broad idea about my system and how I organise my genealogy research, notes and discoveries. So you now have a starting point for creating a system that makes sense to you. You don’t have to stick with my methods 100%. In fact, I encourage you to adjust and adapt every step if there are options that better suit the way you work.
For example, you may hate Trello but love spreadsheets. So use Excel or Google Sheets instead. Or perhaps you think my naming convention is nonsensical and have a method that suits you better. So, your method is 100% the one that you should use.
These ideas I’ve shared today are a starting point if you’re struggling to know what you have, what you need to find and keep buying the same materials repeatedly.
I promised to share how I tackled getting my paper stacks and digital clutter under control.
The secret is to do it in 15-minute blocks.
The easiest way to discourage yourself is to take on too much at once. You will fail. The best way to build a new habit is small, repeatable actions that you can do regularly.
I love 15-minute blocks. You can get more done than you think, everyone can find 15-minutes a few times a week, and it’s over before you have time to get bored or frustrated with the task. So even if you initially dread doing it, you can manage it for 15 minutes.
First, make a plan, create a structure and break up the tasks, so you’re ready to go. Then, add it to your schedule at least three times a week, but it can be every day if you want. Remember, it’s only 15-minutes.
In each session, set a timer and do the task until the buzzer sounds. Then you stop until the next scheduled session. Don’t keep going; stop and move on to whatever you’ve planned next.
For example, your plan might be to sort out your physical paper stacks. The structure will be what you are filing the paperwork into and the categories you’ll file them under. You’ll get all the materials ready to go, so there is no opportunity for excuses.
The first task will be to sort each stack into categories. So no filing yet; right now, you’re just sorting. For example, suppose you’re ordering alphabetically by surname. In that case, you’ll sort the pages into 26 piles (A to Z). Expect this to take a few sessions, but it will depend on how many pages you have to file.
Next, you’ll move on to task two, sorting by person. And the third task would be to file your new paper piles for each ancestor. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you sort those piles and get years of paperwork filed away.
I implemented these four systems over time and in small steps. It took about a year to add all the stages, and it’s still an evolving process. One which I review and adjust a couple of times a year.
So if you feel overwhelmed by your genealogy to-file pile or are constantly doubling up on searches and orders, know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t try to tackle it all at once because you don’t have to fix everything in a single weekend. Instead, break up the tasks and don’t be afraid to experiment with different options until you find a comfortable and repeatable way that suits the way you work.
Or use my secret weapons as a guide and develop:
- A system to track your progress, discoveries, orders, and filing
- A digital and physical filing system including file naming convention
- Searchable research log complete with a detailed to-do list
- A process for research notetaking and review.
Start small. Tackle problems one at a time to streamline your system and organise your research processes and discoveries.
Now, let’s continue the conversation in the comments. I’d love to hear about your biggest struggle with genealogy organisation. Are digital or physical files the biggest problem? And what is that problem? The number of files? Deciding a naming convention? Choosing where to put specific certificates and documents?
And let me know if you have a question about a different genealogy organisation writing or design problem that you’d like me to answer. Look for the link to the Ask the Creative Family Historian submission form in the description below. I can’t wait to hear from you.
That’s it from me, so I’ll see you in the next video. Until then, happy storytelling!